From August 18, 2008

We must train people to break the rules Petty bureaucrats are a necessary evil. But we must instruct them in when to use their initiative and make exceptions

Lay out the entrails, read omens and auguries, study the heavens, shake your hoary locks like an ancient seer. Signs and portents bring us messages, and we should heed them ere civilisation crumbles.

Off Hope Cove, on the Devon coast, a crew of strong, experienced men has saved a girl's life with minutes to spare, only to find itself “disciplined” because the only boat available was classified as an “additional facility awaiting inspection”. Earlier and farther inland, see two more strong men standing helpless in their luminous Police Community Support uniforms, wittering into radios because they lacked the correct certificates to try to rescue a drowning boy.

Elsewhere, a coastguard resigned after saving a 13-year-old danging from a cliff. He failed to fetch and buckle on his own safety harness, and immediately found himself in trouble from bosses droning that they “don't want dead heroes”.

Meanwhile a thousand small habitual practices – from cake stalls to carpentry classes – find themselves under heavy reproof and restraint. And in a hospital ward somewhere a dying, frail old man repeatedly falls out of bed because nurses reckon that they can't put up his cot sides without a “risk assessment”, in case they breach his “human rights” and “unlawfully imprison” him.

A frantic family tries to get a telephone line reconnected to a remote Welsh hillside where a man has had a stroke, and meet only call-centre shrugs because they don't have the account number off the bill; a neighbour phones the weekend “on-call” doctor service about an ailing nonagenarian neighbour, to be told by a prim lady that nothing can be done until they give the victim's correct postcode and date of birth.

An amateur dramatic group has to find lock-up storage for two plastic toy swords; and in Huddersfield, citizens have to barricade the road before binmen will take away rubbish bags that didn't fit correctly into the wheelie bins, although the surplus is entirely due to the said binmen having been on strike and omitting the last collection.

From distant California, thanks to Timesonline message boards, comes the echo of a voice from the Ancient World. Jim from El Centro responded to the Hope Cove rescue story at the weekend with a quotation from Marcus Tullius Cicero: “A bureaucrat is the most despicable of men, though he is needed as vultures are needed, but one hardly admires vultures, whom bureaucrats so strangely resemble. I have yet to meet a bureaucrat who was not petty, dull, almost witless, crafty or stupid, an oppressor or a thief, a holder of little authority in which he delights, as a boy delights in possessing a vicious dog. Who can trust such creatures?”

Something is wrong. We read too many stories about this craven, inhuman, poltroonish cowering behind rules and routines, and about individuals who get into trouble for momentarily breaching them in the name of humanity or sense. I take issue with Cicero and Jim a little, though – it is too easy to rage at bureaucracy itself and join in thoughtless jeering at “suits”. Even Cicero accepts that efficient administration is necessary: it gets things done and distributed, and is a bulwark against chaos. So I think we have to choose our targets more carefully, and unpick more precisely the evil threads that make us so uneasy and unhappy and desperate to stick to rules in defiance of common sense and kindness.

I would diagnose it as insecurity, linked to a misunderstanding of the concept of “training” (which, incidentally, links straight back to the culture of unintelligent testing in schools). Depressed, anxious people always prefer rules to thinking for themselves; at the extreme they lapse into obsessive-compulsive disorder, forever washing their hands and touching wood. Depressed, anxious institutions such as the Maritime and Coastguard Authority, National Health Service management (and quite a few call centres) display this pathology on a corporate level. You get the “training”, tick the right multiple-choice boxes and refuse to think that there might be another choice, not listed. You feel safer that way, like a troubled child determined not to colour outside the lines.

Yet this is the opposite of real training, as practised for years in real armies, navies, laboratories and institutions. Real training lays down a framework of expertise and safety not to prevent initiative, but to free it. If you really know the rules and understand their purpose, you can judge when to make an exception and break them.

A nurse should be able to think (as some no doubt do): “Right, the patient is confused and rolling about, and might get hurt, I'll put up the sides of the bed and keep an eye on things, and have a word with the relatives later to explain.”

The boat crew should feel free to think (as they did): “The big lifeboat isn't going to be in time, we know our own boat's safe even though it hasn't got the certificate yet, and if we do get into trouble it's worth a try to save a life – go for it!” The dustmen should say: “OK, so there are bags lying beside the wheelie bins in contravention of council regulations, but that'll be because of the strike, innit? Chuck 'em in.” The NHS or telecom call-centre staff should be alert not only to the list of correct procedures on the wall, but to the note of panic in the distant voice.

Employees should be allowed to be people too; and a good bureaucrat should feel safe to judge which value scored highest at the critical moment. We all see examples of this gentle accommodation every day. But we also know that those who break small rules for human values run a real risk, because of that corporate anxiety and depression. It is brought on by soulless micromanagement from the top and a culture that assumes the citizen is a moron. Keeping the balance is not always easy: but hell, human life is a tightrope and always has been. Certainly the reckless rule-breaker should be curbed, even sacked; but so should the stupidly rigid bureaucrat.

Can't leave you on that gloomy note. So rejoice: 125 miles out in the dark North Sea, in the excellent Tall Ships Race, 13 crew (mainly teenage) have just been rescued from the flooded cutter Clyde Challenger by the (mainly teenage) crew of a fellow-competitor, the Norwegian ketch Loyal. I am sure that they all obeyed the rules: perish the thought that they wouldn't. But if they had to break a few, good luck to them.